No Worries for Complacent Hill

MESA, Ariz. -- With only a little over one week to go until Opening Day, left-hander Rich Hill is right in the thick of things for one of the Cubs' final roster spots. One in particular is the fifth starter's job, which remains in limbo after another injury to Mark Prior.

While Opening Day for the Cubs and most every other major league club is Monday, April 3, the 2006 season officially begins the previous night when the Cleveland Indians visit the defending World Series Champion Chicago White Sox. That means that all 25-man rosters have to be finalized before April 2.

The Cubs open up against the Cincinnati Reds the following day at Great American Ballpark beginning at 1:10 p.m. CDT. The game can be seen on WGN, and one of the final roster decisions expected to be made could involve the fifth starter's spot.

The Cubs plan to go with Carlos Zambrano as their Opening Day starter for the second year in a row. Originally intended to start the second and final game of the season-opening series against the Reds April 5, Prior instead succumb to a sore shoulder, which will cause him to start the season on the disabled list for the third consecutive year.

As a result, left-hander Glendon Rusch was moved up to the No. 2 slot temporarily, leaving Greg Maddux and Jerome Williams as the third and fourth starters. The Cubs haven't decided who will close out the rotation yet, but one of the names competing for the spot is Hill.

Now 26, Hill gained some experience last year with the major league club after getting off to a fast start at Double-A West Tenn. A 6'5" presence who often possesses a knee-buckling curveball, he struck out 90 in only 57 2/3 innings with the Diamond Jaxx and was promoted to Triple-A Iowa in late May.

With perhaps the opportunity of a lifetime knocking at his door, one might expect to find Hill salivating over the chance of earning a spot in the Cubs' starting rotation -- even if it may only be temporary.

Not necessarily so, he says.

"[The injury to Prior] hasn't changed anything in the way I approach things," Hill said. "If I go out and pitch well, I think the job's mine. It's nothing complicated, but ultimately it is up to the powers that be. It's not the end of the world if I go back to Triple-A. I'll be in Chicago some time this year. I'll have my time in the big leagues."

The fact that Hill is every bit as complacent about that as he is about everything else in his surroundings shouldn't come as a surprise to those who know him best.

Following the 2004 season, the former college standout at Michigan began focusing on the mental side of both his game and life in general. He attributes that (and specifically the taosports book Thinking Body, Dancing Mind) as one of the primary reasons for his coming out party a season ago, when he won 10 games in 21 appearances on the minor league circuit.

"I've been incorporating a lot not only into the game, but daily life," Hill said, adding that having a positive image of things and knowing how to get out of everyday struggles and challenges are most beneficial.

This spring, Hill got off to a challenging start by giving up nine runs and 10 hits in his first six innings of Cactus League action. He worked three scoreless innings against Arizona on Monday, allowing no hits but walking three.

The Cubs have expressed concern over his six walks so far this spring, despite the fact that Hill fanned 182 and walked only 35 last year between West Tenn and Iowa.

"Things have been progressing pretty nicely since the slow start," Hill said. "I've been throwing the ball well with good fastballs, curveballs, and pretty good changeups mixed in. Right now, I'm working on keeping the ball down and hitting my spots."

And with less than a full year of Triple-A under his belt, Hill reiterates that there's no need to worry about where he'll start the 2006 season.

"It isn't where you start, it's where you finish up," he said. "The opportunity is there for me to grab. All I have to do is go out and pitch well. Competing is the biggest thing. You need to go out and show no fear of who's in the box, or what team you're playing against. It's just about going out there and getting it done."

That's where all the focus on the mental aspect helps.

"The game is what it is," Hill said. "As long as I keep a good attitude and don't take it too seriously, and just play for the moment and not try to press anything … to me, that's the only way to go about it. You take a light-hearted approach to it and everything should fall into place."

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